BLANCO — When Blanco County resident Jacy Lewis began her training to became a Court Appointed Special Advocate in the spring, she felt she had an advocacy spirit.
Now with two teenagers on behalf of whom Lewis advocates in the courts, her attitude hasn’t changed — it’s grown.
“Being a CASA volunteer has really opened my eyes to how difficult the foster-care system is to navigate for all the adults involved, so you can imagine how challenging it is for a child who — whether they know it or not — lacks the power within the system,” she said. “So, I’ve learned how important the role of the CASA is in their child or children’s lives. The (CASA) volunteer is the one acting on behalf of the child. They are the children’s voice in the process — whether it’s the foster system or court system.”
CASA for the Highland Lakes Area serves children in Burnet, Blanco, Llano, San Saba and Lampasas counties who have been removed from their home by Child Protective Services because of abuse or neglect. The CPS caseworker then places the child or children in foster care.
That’s when CASA steps in and assigns an advocate for the youths.
But with the local CASA organization anticipating a 1-2 percent increase in its 2013 caseload, more volunteers are needed, said Galyn Woerner, CASA for the Highland Lakes Area advocate coordinator.
The organization currently serves 190 children in its five-county region.
“Our goal is to have 50 more volunteers,” she said. “It’s an aggressive goal, but we think it’s attainable.”
The local CASA organization is hosting a training program starting in January. The training includes 30 hours of instruction and three hours of courtroom observation, Woerner said.
“And (being an advocate) is going to require at least a year of your life,” she said.
The timeframe is due to the state requirement that CPS and the courts have a year (sometimes 18 months) to establish permanency for children removed from their homes. Woerner explained this can come in the form of reunification with the child’s or children’s family, adoption or state custody.
In that timeframe, the CASA advocate often becomes the one constant in the child’s life, said Beverly Bowmaster, an advocate supervisor.
“The CPS caseworker changes and (the child or children) may move from one foster home to another,” she said. “Through it all is the CASA advocate.”
The benefit to the child is that he or she can build up a sense of trust with the CASA advocate. For some children trusting adults doesn’t come easy.
“You have to understand some of these kids really haven’t had an adult in their lives they felt they could trust,” Lewis said. “But when they see that you (as a CASA advocate) really care and have their interest in mind, you begin to build that trust with them.
“And part of it comes by seeing them and listening to them.”
Lewis advocates for two teenagers in two separate cases. She admitted that working with teens might be seem a bit challenging, but it’s something she loves.
Woerner said CASA works with its volunteers to assign them children they feel most comfortable with as far as ages. The organization also tries to connect advocates with children in the same geographic area, though where the youths end up often depends on foster care availability.
CASA advocates try to regularly meet with their child or youth. During this time, Bowmaster said, the volunteer learns how the child is and what concerns he or she might have. It becomes a chance to get a look into the child’s life.
The advocate then becomes the youth’s voice in the courtroom as well. A voice that judges listen to.
Advocates are never left on their own. They always have support, whether for questions, advice or courtroom assistance.
“Once you become a volunteer, you’re not just thrown out there on your own,” Lewis said. “It’s a team effort.”
The time commitment varies depending on the case. But there is a great deal of flexibility in it, Lewis said.
In the end, she said, becoming a CASA volunteer comes down to two things — a passion for children and a desire to advocate on their behalf.
“It’s wonderful knowing that I’m helping these kids out,” Lewis said. “Being a CASA volunteer makes me feel like I’m fulfilling a role in society that’s so important. It’s a chance to change a child’s life and help society out as well.”
For more on CASA training or volunteering in other capacities, call Woerner at (325) 388-3440 or go to www.highlandlakescasa.com.